The Majestic Blue Peafowl

February 12, 2015 by  
Filed under Features

Peafowl constitutes three species, the Indian peacock or the Indian peafowl or the Blue peafowl (Pavo cristatus L.) distributed widespread across the entire Indian subcontinent; the Green peafowl or the Java peafowl (Pavo muticus L.) restricted predominantly to South-East Asia; and the Congo peafowl or Congo peacock (Afropavo congensis Chapin) endemic to the Congo basin of central Africa. Although the Blue Peafowl is in the Least Concern category of IUCN, the green peafowl has been placed under Endangered and the Congo Peacock under Vulnerable status. The Indian and African species are sexually dimorphic, suggesting that male and female members show distinctly different appearance and plumage; while the Green peafowls are almost similar in appearance. The most common and widely distributed among these three is the majestic Indian peafowl or the Blue Peafowl found across the entire Indian subcontinent including India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan, as far as Sri Lanka (Pavo cristatus singhalensis) and as an introduced species in the continents of North America, Europe and Australia. The species is unfortunately reported to be extinct in the wild in Bangladesh.

Map of the Indian subcontinent showing native range/distribution of Blue peafowl.

The Blue peafowl (peacock) is the national bird of the Republic of India and has been an inseparable part of the local culture, religion, tradition and history, art and sculpture, myths and legends of the great Indian subcontinent from time immemorial. It is believed that the bird was introduced in Europe by Alexander’s retreating army after their grand campaigns in Persia and India; as an exotic bird species for the elites of the society with spectacular beauty. The spectacular courtship behavior of the Blue peafowl has been a part of several local myths and legends related to eternal love and romanticism for centuries and mentioned in several ancient texts and scriptures suggesting their long association with their human neighbors. The bird has been a symbol of the royalty and elites and has been a regular pet reared in the royal gardens and parks in both ancient and medieval India along with spotted (axis) deer and black bucks.

Photo credit: Peiman Zandi
The blue peafowl has a characteristic blue and green image with iridescent properties. Occasional white peafowls (mostly leucistic) are also reported that are commonly breed by zoological gardens and by private bird parks or gardens across the globe for their high ornamental values and popularity with the visitors. True albinos are also reported but comparatively rare in nature. The most spectacular aspect of the Blue peafowl is the majestic tail feathers of the males (peacocks) with distinct “eyes” that are best observed when the males display their tail feathers well stretched to attract the females for breeding purposes. Although the males of the species (peacocks) are characterized by their spectacular colorful feathers; the females (peahens) are less spectacularly ornamented with a mix of dull green, grey, white and brown feathers and are slightly smaller in size than the males. They also lack the long extensive tail feathers of the peacocks. Both have crest or crown on their heads, but the peacocks have brighter colors compared to the peahens. The young and immature peafowls (peachicks) are dull in coloration, varying between tawny to yellow and with inconspicuous patches or streaks of dull brown or white.

Photo credit: Peiman Zandi
The species exhibit elaborate courtship displays, with several competing males (peacocks) displaying their majestic tail feathers with distinctive eyes to a target female (peahen). The peahens sleet the individuals with most elaborate displays which is believed to be sign for their genetic fitness and good health and features. There are several theories put forward since the time of Charles Darwin in explaining such elaborate courtship displays and their role in evolution. They constitute one of the best examples for sexual selection.

Photo credit: Rahul Ray
The males are extremely territorial and they defend their territory fiercely by engaging in close combats with their challengers and intruders; and are often quite aggressive during the breeding season and in defending their nesting sites from different predators. These are terrestrial birds that nest and forage on the ground and roost on the branches of high trees. Their diets include a mixture of various plants and plant parts, different arthropods including insects, reptiles (snakes) and amphibians (frogs). They are a noisy species with frequent territorial and alarm calls of the males are a well know feature of wild India. Several pairs may nest close to one another and raise their chicks; but are extremely territorial and intolerant, if another (particularly males) dare to venture into the territory claimed by a resident breeding couple.

Photo credit: Rahul Ray
Article contributed by: Rahul Ray and Saikat Kumar Basu

The Sunderbans: A fragile ecosystem with vulnerable avifauna

January 7, 2015 by  
Filed under Features

The Sunderbans, represents a sensitive ecological region that is split across the international boundary of India and Bangladesh in South Asia and represents an unique ecosystem unparallel to anywhere else in the world due to its spectacular mangrove forest and amazing biodiversity. Home to a wide variety of highly endangered flora and fauna the region deserves special conservation status. However, the mangrove vegetation has been negatively impacted as a result of unrestricted growth of local human population well beyond the carrying capacity of this fragile ecosystem. The majority of the population being impacted due to lack of economic opportunities is heavily dependent on the easily accessible forest resources for their daily sustenance. As a consequence, the highly endangered mangrove vegetation and the local wildlife have been seriously impacted due to anthropogenic activities such as encroachments in the restricted forest belts, non-judicious harvest of forest and riverine products, poaching and capturing wildlife, deforestation, pollution and diseases. Due to severe anthropogenic pressures, the mangrove vegetation is rapidly disappearing making this region extremely vulnerable to cyclonic disturbances from the Bay of Bengal.

Figure 1. The map of the Sunderbans.

The mangrove vegetation serves as an important natural barrier to the regular micro-climatic turbulence and fluctuations in weather pattern of the adjoining Bay of Bengal with enhanced frequency of powerful cyclones (Fig 1). The local mangrove vegetation (Fig 2) is a nature’s safeguard in the form of a protective shelter belt to the devastating cyclones impacting this region from geological past. The rapid and unrestricted destruction of this natural shelter belt is soon or later going to have serious environmental impacts in South Bengal and adjoining region including the city of Kolkata, India (Fig 3).

Figure 2. The spectacular mangrove vegetation of the Sunderbans.

Similar situation is also prevalent in adjoining Bangladesh with similar impacts. It is therefore important for all of us to realize the ecological significance of the mangrove forest and take every necessary measure to protect it from further degradation. Unless suitable monitoring and stringent laws are not applied very soon the ecosystem that has been stretched beyond its carrying capacity may be irreparably damaged. Since anthropogenic impacts are the significant factors impacting the stability of this ecosystem; as long as the economic condition of the local human populations of the region remains impoverished, very little is expected in terms of successful conservation of the fragile mangrove ecosystem.

Figure 3. Progressive deterioration of coastal mangrove vegetation due to severe anthropogenic pressure, environmental pollution and natural disasters is severely impacting the local ecosystem and its unique wildlife.

This unique global ecosystem is home to a wide diversity of avifauna such as fishing eagles or ospreys, Pallas’s sea-eagle, white-bellied sea eagles, peregrine falcons, brahminy kite, pariah kites, northern eagle owl, brown fish owl, common crow, jungle crow, white-breasted kingfisher, pied kingfishers, white collared kingfisher, black-capped kingfisher, pied kingfisher, brown-winged kingfisher, woodpeckers, drongo, common snipes, crow pheasant, magpie robin, wood sandpipers, marsh harriers, paradise flycatchers, jungle babbler, green pigeon, spotted dove, cotton teal, munia, common mynah, black-tailed godwit, sparrow, red jungle fowl, swamp partridge, Indian cuckoo, rose ringed parakeet, Rufous treepie, water hen, coot, pheasant tailed jacana, cormorant, grey heron, purple heron, green-backed heron, night heron, golden plover, pintail, egret, white ibis, white-eyed pochard, greater adjutant, Asian open billed stork, black-necked stork, herring gull, spotted-billed pelicans to name only a handful. However, the rapid and illegal encroachments and severe anthropogenic pressure has been negatively impacting the habitat of the helpless avifauna as they are proving detrimental to all forms of wildlife inhabiting this unique ecosystem.

Figure 4. Avifauna of the Sunderbans. Photo credit: Rahul Ray

Heavy rates of poaching, illegal capture of birds for both local and international, underground pet markets, pollution of the local stream and tidal creeks through toxic wastes directly released into the river without treatment and detoxification from industrial workhouses and agricultural run offs rich in toxic agro-chemicals (synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides fungicides, weedicides etc) are deteriorating the local environment and negatively impacting the fish and other estuarine and aquatic food sources which in turn is having their subsequent secondary impact on the avian population. Several of the bird species inhabiting this ecosystem are top predators and as such are severely impacted through the process of biomagnifications as a consequence of consistent and unrestricted environmental pollution. Recently ecological disasters in this region in the form of oil spillage from oil tankers travelling across the sensitive ecozone and from accidents are further deteriorating this ecosystem making the life of the local wildlife including the avifauna at the turn of a dangerous peril; Unless strict measures of conservation are adopted and the anthropogenic pressure on this ecosystem is not considerably curbed the future of this unique ecosystem and environment and its majestic wildlife and avifauna stands the chance of being slowly wiped out in the not so distant future.

Figure 5. Avifauna diversity of the Sunderbans. Photo credits: Saikat Kumar Basu, Rahul Ray, Peiman Zandi, Srimoyi Mazumder and Pallav Mukhopadhyay

Figure 6. Avifauna of the Sunderbans. Photo credits: Saikat Kumar Basu, Manorma Sharma, Rahul Ray and Srimoyi Mazumder.

Fig 7. Anthropogenic pressure on Sunderbands include growing human population, extensive and unrestricted developments in horticulture, agriculture, fisheries, small industries, tourism and increased transportation severely impacting this fragile ecosystem. Photo credits: Saikat Kumar Basu, Ratnabali Sengupta, Srimoyi Mazumder, and Pallav Mukhopadhyay.

Article contributed by Saikat Kumar Basu